EMPAC's Exciting and Provocative Fall Season

(SEAMUS Newsletter, Spring, 2009)

by Barton McLean

Toni Dove: Spectropia. Nov. 13, EMPAC Theater.

Although "Spectropia" can be viewed as a traditional sci fi film, with the linear plot of a futuristic tecno heroine linking backward in time to her ancestor in the time of the great depression, along with uncovering some financial swindling eerily apropos to our own time, the real interest here lies in how the creators, performance artist Toni Dove and co-performer and software designer R. Luke DuBois utilized a technologically elegant system to vary many of the details live during the film. Dove and DuBois incidentally, have been instrumental in the development of Jitter, DuBois being one of its principal creators. The software used was an extension of the Jitter concept. It creates 6 fields of control on the performance screen, activated through motion sensors and a laser harp configuration, through which the two performers waved their arms, all of which allowed for selection of video clips, and changing the speed and direction of the clips to effect a live-performed quasi-improvisatory character to the film, while still maintaining its narrative direction.

This technology is fairly ubiquitous in its component parts, but what was striking about this duo's concept was (1) that they realized it within the constraints of a more traditional narrative script, making the realization much more difficult for them, unlike most attempts in which the performer will just scratch around the clips with often no reason for doing so other than they can, and (2) the powerful ways in which they made their performance gestures so crystal clear to the audience, so the we all became engaged in the performance process. Their arm gestures of control were often amplified via their being shown on supplemental screens to both sides, and they used large colored strips of light, each of which signaled a particular zone of control the performers were working in. This absolute sharing of the performance process with the audience was the most striking plus to me, along with the obvious hard work and rehearsal time spent on the outcome, a process that has taken them 9 years.

Hans Tutschku, Daniel Treige, and work of Ianis Xenakis. EMPAC Studio I, Nov. 15, 2008.

The speaker configuration in this electroacoustic music concert was a 24-channel setup with three tiers of speakers in layers of ceiling, middle, and floor, with four additional subwoofers, all configured in Studio 1, a large, acoustically tight black box space. It is interesting that some of the same equipment was seen in the Normandeau concert in the large Concert Hall earlier (reviewed in the last issue), with 40 speakers diffusing 16 channels. So it appears that EMPAC actually has the capability of almost any configuration of sound diffusion in any of its four major performance spaces. The system as heard in this event was truly impressive. Particularly noteworthy are the acoustic panels that line the space, made of a special pockmarked gypsum material designed optimally for smoothness of frequency response and clarity of sound.

The first work, "Zwei Raume" by German-born Hans Tutschku, was a 24-channel 21 minute work utilizing the wave field system at the Technical University Berlin and the GRM Acousmonium. The result sounded to me to be firmly in the musique concreté tradition. His diffusion technique, which was altered anew for this particular space, was one of fairly aggressive panning of discrete channels into single points of sound, causing a frequent bouncing of sounds back and forth, which at times approached the cliché. The individual sounds themselves were sparse and very clean, and as such made effective use of the space. But I am sometimes bothered in sound diffusion concerts by so much gratuitous panning, when it seems to have no intrinsic connection to the music itself.

The two Xenakis works avoided this situation by utilizing the 24 + 4 speaker system, not as an opportunity for bouncing sounds, but rather as a huge vehicle for articulating and spreading out and clarifying his massively dense textural/timbral creations. Both works were specially mixed by Daniel Teige on 8 channels, and were diffused live into the 24 + 4 speaker system by it EMPAC's music curator Micah Silver.

Having started as an electroacoustic composer in the studios of Ianis Xenakis at Indiana University in 1971, and having his music as a driving mentoring force inside my brain for 37 years, the reader can understand that I approached this concert with great hope as well as not a little anxiety, due to Xanakis's predilection for playing his electroacoustic works such as "Bohor" at ear-splitting levels during his later years. But not to worry. EMPAC music curator Micah Silver interpreted the two works with exquisite sensitivity, only slowly rotating the relation of the source sounds to the system, and making sure that there was a maximum of clarity in these often super-dense textures. And that is the key to understanding these two Xenakis works in particular. His esthetic is to produce dense, unyielding textures that continue for long time periods. In keeping with his stochastic processes in other works, the details will be in constant flux, but yet the real compositional idea is the overall textural gestalt. "Persepolis" (1971) is a 56 minute work of unrelenting textural density. As in much of Xenakis's electroacoustic music, the sound sources are disguised from their concreté sources, but one can hear hints of string harmonics, glissandi, woodwind multiphonics, wind sounds, various white noise-derived complexes, and a more clear pitch-defining ceramic wind chime which serves as a sort of pitch anchor throughout the work. As in "Bohor," I had not been impressed with the stereo version, but when it unfolded in this magnificent space, the effect was relevatory. I found myself becoming caught up in the joy of reveling in the diffusion of the textures, never tiring of its infinite combinations and slight but persistent changes in the mix of sounds unfolding. This diffusion system brought the works to life as no stereo system can do (unlike his earlier "Orient-Occident," which works even in mono).

"La Légend d'Eer" (1971) is a 46-minute work similar to "Persepolis" in its overall approach, but unlike the former, and certainly unlike "Bohor," (1962) which is nothing short of a solid impenetrable wall of sound. As "Persepolis" opens up this sound wall to allow one to distinguish subtle bursts and variations and directions of the source sounds, "La Légend d'Eer" further develops Xenakis's direction of a more traditional (dare one say this about anything Xenakis wrote?) bent, in that there is a clear progression of sound sources from high to low as the work progresses, and there is also a gradual progression from one timbral complex to another, so that, every five minutes or so, you are hearing something fairly different from what came before. And there is even a return to the beginning high sounds as the work closes. In hearing these two uncompromising gems from our heritage, I can think of no other recent electroacoustic concert where I was so riveted and drawn into a composer's sound universe, helped to a great degree by Micah Silver's skillful sound diffusion techniques.

The Array Ensemble, EMPAC Concert Hall, Nov. 8.

I suppose that, especially in a performance series where the whole idea is to take risks, there will be some flops. This concert of nine very short contemporary miniature works plus a lengthy work by James Tenney, was a most depressing one, in that the Canadian-based ensemble's chosen works, all commissions by the ensemble, sounded more like freshman composition student exercises than mature works worthy of such presentation. And they were so simply written that I was not even able to determine if the performers were skilled or not. Enough said.